In February, 2008, while I was covering the Texas Democratic primary for HuffPost's OffTheBus, I voluntarily passed on an opportunity to write about former president Bill Clinton's longtime mistress. With considerable amusement, therefore, I anticipate reading Game Change, Mark Halperin's and John Heilemann's salacious new book about the 2008 presidential race, which will be released tomorrow, because they apparently rush in where I feared to tread. "After some discreet fact-finding, the [Hillary campaign staff] concluded that [the rumors] were true: that Bill was indeed having an affair," H & H write. "For months, thereafter, the war room within a war room braced for the explosion, which her aides knew could come at any moment." That moment could have occurred during the Texas primary.
Here is an excerpt from my book Notes from a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008, where I discuss my decision not to write the story. In part, Clueless is an account of the painful and arduous method of learning journalism by doing it. As a neophyte, I had presumed to think I could cover the presidential election with no bias or partisan agenda. But Texas taught me that any reporter, like the snail carrying her house, always brings to storytelling a certain amount of personal baggage. As an unpaid citizen journalist, on the other hand, I could make choices about which other reporters could only dream. In Texas, I discovered that this enormous power was a Faustian gift.
Sometimes I thought that years of travel had taught me only one thing: to distinguish between observation and conclusion. I know what I'm looking at, but what am I really seeing? Driving back to Houston from Victoria that evening, I knew I had witnessed something significant--but did not know what. Not until the week before the Pennsylvania primary, at a midnight rally with Bill Clinton in Puerto Rican Philadelphia, did I realize that what I had seen two months before in Texas had been the specific problem Bill posed, not Hillary's campaign itself. Managing former President Clinton must have been like trying to herd a rogue elephant. Huma Abedin, Hillary's long-suffering and loyal aide, looked frazzled as she walked through downtown Victoria. The day when Bill Clinton had been a stellar asset to his wife's campaign had come and gone. The autumn book-and-fundraising tour might as well have been years and not just a season ago. . . .
The day in Victoria was shot through with the aloneness that increasingly was a companion on the trail. Eventually, I would follow Bill Clinton to more than twenty small-town rallies in five states, where sometimes I was the only print reporter present. . . .
This isolation set me apart from fellow wayfarers. When in April Kit Seelye called to ask about getting Obama's remarks at the San Francisco fundraiser, she said that the Friday my piece went up, late in the afternoon the political team at the New York Times had been together reviewing their coverage of the past week and planning the next, thinking that Hillary in Bosnia would still be the story, when BlackBerries began to go off. I often think about Kit Seelye's aside--and always in the context of how terrific is that, how great to be part of a team. The gang of twelve at OffTheBus had long since dispersed. We no longer had conference calls. . . . I was out in the field alone and making decisions on my own. Eventually, I would think long and hard about the choices I made.
At the time I covered the rally in Victoria, I had decided not to follow up on another story about Bill Clinton that had come my way--one involving his longtime mistress. I mention the nature of the Clinton story with some specificity now only because months later, after the Democratic primaries, the National Enquirer wrote about the relationship. In Texas, staring this story in the face, immediately I turned aside. If I know all about this woman, then surely every national reporter does and is as wary of the story as I am. Nevertheless, I was careful never to mention anything to anybody at OffTheBus. I rationalized the refusal to follow through by telling myself that Clinton's private life was peripheral to the race. But then there came a moment in the Texas primary when the nature of the Clinton marriage suddenly appeared front and center.
A difference between Election 2008 and preceding presidential races is that only one political ad for TV had as much impact as any of half-a-dozen YouTube videos. The brilliant television ad was the "3 A.M. crisis phone call at the White House" that the Clinton Campaign ran in Texas before the primary. The Clinton team knew Texans--folks obsessed with all things big, including such big prospects as national security. So the red phone ad, as it was sometimes called, was powerful persuasion. If I heard a Texan say it once, I heard it a hundred times: thank goodness Hillary will have Bill next to her at 3 A.M. By late February, a piece that gave depth to this naïve view of the Clintons' relationship was suddenly something to think about. But in fact I never really considered it. Executing such a story could have had consequences for the mistress's children, who were still minors. There was no way I would write something that I knew in advance would mortify a high school student in front of his peers. My mother's outrage and pain at the political sex scandal that had blighted her adolescence was just too vivid a presence. [A previous chapter in my book recounts my family's involvement in politics--what had once seemed quaint history but that I gradually realized was shaping every observation I made. The relevant incident for my Texas decision was an old collision between sex and politics that hurt my mother and her siblings, all young teens at the time. In the 1930s, E. H. Crump, boss of the Memphis political machine, hired a man to woo my grandmother and then used the ensuing billets-doux to blackmail my grandfather, who was mayor. To summarize the earlier chapter: political machinations went awry; children paid the price.]
So I continued to rationalize. I told myself various truths: many different kinds of loving experiences make a good world; no one except partners themselves know what goes on behind the bedroom door. As a woman who has been married for thirty-six years, I appreciate the complicated and forgiving nature of long attachments. Nuance about the dynamic of a successful marriage had been one of the things lacking in the widely-criticized New York Times piece on John McCain's supposed infatuation with a lobbyist. Therefore, I told myself, the presence of a mistress really does not tell us all that much about the rich relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton. But, in the end, I passed on the story for personal reasons. And I came to see that family history, which had always been a penumbra belonging to the dead, was shaping my own storytelling.
Choosing what to write, a luxury most reporters do not have, is a two-sided gift. Time and again I chose--sometimes wisely, sometimes not. That power, too, would become a burden. I began to wonder if it were a good thing for a reporter to be flying solo--if it were not better to be part of a team that deliberated late on Friday afternoons. Whether to write about Bill Clinton's mistress may have been too big a decision for one reporter on the scene. On the other hand, if an editor ordered me to hand over material I had gathered on the company dime, would I feel relief--or guilt at handing off a hit that I was not willing to execute myself? Never have I come to any satisfactory accommodation with this conundrum, a companion of a sort for the increasingly-long twilight drives as winter turned into spring and summer."
Notes from a Clueless Journalist is available starting tomorrow as an e-book at Amazon. Yes, I am piggybacking on the renewed interest in the 2008 story that Halperin and Heilemann have stirred. Now I write mostly about foreign affairs. This week I will be discussing Obama's war on terrorism at target="_hplink">www.mayhillfowler.com.]
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